Truths And Myths About Cyberbullying

Dr. Delaney Ruston

“Really what the research suggests is that it’s supporting the target that is more effective than punishing the bully, which tends to lead to retaliation.” — Elizabeth Englander.

For this Tech Talk Tuesday, I spoke with psychologist and researcher, Elizabeth Englander Ph.D., who has been working for decades to understand and prevent bullying. Englander has a wonderful book out titled 25 Myths about Bullying and Cyberbullying.

The word cyberbullying gets used A LOT by young people. Sometimes, for example, youth refers to the one-time act of posting a mildly negative comment on a post as “cyberbullying.”

Defining traditional bullying 

When it comes to the definition of traditional bullying, here is what Elizabeth Englander says: 

“It has to do with cruelty by one child or group of children towards another child — it is deliberate and intentional cruelty that happens repeatedly. And there has to be a power dynamic between the target and the perpetrator or perpetrators, such that the target cannot defend themselves — they have significantly less power in the situation.”

Defining cyberbullying

First off, it is essential to say that research has shown that if someone is getting bullied, it tends to occur both online and offline (assuming the kids have access to tech). 

I learned in talking with Elizabeth that even for her, who is seeped in this work, it is complicated to define cyberbullying. 

For example, if a person is only being cruel online (which is rare), when is it actual bullying?

Elizabeth says cyberbullying is different. She said to me, “If I post a rumor about you, Delaney, and other people pick it up and spread it around, bertainly, you’ve experienced something repeatedly but I only did something once. It just makes it really hard to stick to the bullying definition.”

Here is the key point that Elizabeth wants us to talk with our kids about related to online actions: 

“It’s really important for kids to understand the nature of technology. It can really get away from you very fast. That’s really the lesson rather than sticking to the labels.” 

I asked Elizabeth what she thinks about kids and teens often using the word “bullying” when someone just posts a mean comment. She made this interesting point on why doing so can cause a double hurt for the person receiving the cruelty:

“If somebody is mean to you online, and they make fun of a sweatshirt you wore to school that day, and nobody else repeats it or notices it, then it might not be that big of a deal. But then if somebody comes up to you and says ‘Delaney, that was cyberbullying, you’re a victim of cyberbullying,’ then you might actually feel worse.”

If people start telling the person who made that comment that they are a bully when they are not, they feel bad.

Risks for younger kids with cell phones

I have heard from some parents that during Covid, they gave their child a phone earlier than they planned because they wanted their child to have access to friends during the social isolation.

Englander has researched the risks of being involved in cyberbullying for elementary-school age kids who owned a phone. I include this not to scare parents, but just to know that talking with younger kids with phones about these issues is so important: 

“If you own a cellphone in elementary school, your odds of being involved in cyberbullying increased significantly. And the younger you were, the stronger the relationship. It was strongest, actually amongst third graders, and then it decreased. By the time it got to middle school, it wasn’t significant anymore. It’s that the association between owning a cellphone and becoming involved in cyberbullying is strongest among the younger kids, but that’s not saying that they cyberbullied more. So cyberbullying generally peaks in middle school. And you could still get embroiled in cyberbullying, even if you don’t own a phone, because it doesn’t matter because kids are using devices all the time anyway, they’re always on tablets, and they’re playing games and, leaving comments on TikToks.“

It is so clear to us here at the Screenagers Team that it is a perfect time to talk with elementary schools about phones being put away for the day (as well as middle schools) and having good policies for high schools. We still have our campaign going AWAY FOR THE DAY that gives you lots of tools to bring to your school to advocate for policies about devices away. These policies will increase the undistracted face-to-face time that is so key right now. Fortunately, most of the time in-person interactions, are not cruel.

The myth that the best plan of action is to confront a bully 

Elizabeth explained to me why overall confrontation is NOT the main approach we want our kids to take. (And by the way, keep in mind that research consistently shows that the number one place kids go for input and help is their peers.

“Adults often think that the best thing to do about bullying is to confront the bully, and to say, we know what you’re doing, and you’re really mean, and you have to stop. The idea is that either the bully doesn’t know what they’re doing, which means it’s not really bullying, because, remember, bullying is intentional. 

You’re doing it over and over again. They know what they’re doing, or that they just won’t do it if they think other people are disapproving of their behavior. Now, that’s not such a bad hypothesis. The problem is that what research generally finds, and it’s not just my research, is that when bullies get publicly confronted, they tend to take that as a challenge, and one they can’t back away from. So they’ll sort of redouble their efforts and about 75% of the time, that kind of confrontation has no effect at all, or the effect it has is to make the bully feel worse for the target.”

All of this is not to say that if someone is acting as a bully, they should be left alone to continue. Quite the contrary, it could well be that adults, the school, etc. need to get involved. The point to consider is the messaging to young people. For years they were told to “stick up for their friend” and other such messages, but now we have research that explains why this can be problematic. Every situation is different and might warrant dialogue. The key is to talk about this research with our kids.

Unhelpful reactions from parents

Englander shared with me things that kids she researches tell her about their interactions with their parents. For example, she said,

“One of the most common things that kids tell us is, ‘Oh, my gosh, my parents will run and get a baseball bat and call the other parents. Yeah, call everybody. They’ll be really upset.’ It is really important for parents to take sort of a calm attitude and say, “Okay, this is a problem, but it’s a problem that we’re going to deal with, it can be dealt with, and we’re going to deal with it.”

Unhelpful advice from parents

Kids in Englander’s lab also tell her how their parents’ advice around cruelty is often not that helpful. She said,

“Parents might say things such as, ‘Just block this person or don’t use this app.’ And the problem with that is one of the things we found last year was that, we measured both positive and negative interactions online on social media for teenagers. And what we found was that actually one app had both the most negative and the most positive, which suggests that really what’s happening is that some apps sort of lend themselves to intense emotional exchanges and others don’t as much. And, it kind of helps explain why it’s not helpful to say, ‘Oh, just don’t use that app’ because if that’s the app where I’m getting most of my positive interactions as well, I’m not going to want to give that up. …We, as adults, have to have a better understanding of how kids live with this technology and how it intersects with their lives before we start saying things like, ‘Oh, just delete that app or, block that person.’ ”

There are loads more insights from Englander related to bullying, parenting, and policies for schools that I can wait to share with you in an upcoming podcast. As many of you know, when you press “Subscribe” for the Screenagers Podcast, new episodes will automatically download. 

Ideas to get the conversation started:

1. Does it seem like everyone uses the word “bullying” all the time when it might not really be that?
2. Have you already learned in school that the key focus should be on supporting a target rather than focusing on confronting a bully? Or, is that new information?
3. We have been going through an intense period of collective trauma ever since Covid hit. What things have each of us done to make others feel good? And to fuel positive relationships?